Lucid Culture


A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.


March 19, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And she picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

March 8, 2018 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thrills and Dynamism from the Transatlantic Ensemble at Steinway Hall

From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.

The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.

In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.

The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.

Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.

November 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment